Mt. 6:5-15, “Prayer”, Third Wednesday in Lent, 15 Mar 2017
When Jesus teaches us to pray, he gives us specific things to do, and not to do. The first thing Jesus teaches us not to do is pray like hypocrites. Who are hypocrites? The short answer is, “All of us, at one time or another.” But in matters of prayer over a lifetime, hypocrites are those whose prayers do not measure up to the demands of the gospel. They don’t weigh enough, their words aren’t heavy enough. They don’t land with a thud, and don’t leave craters in the dirt like they should. Hypocrites pray lightly to a just and merciful God, but do not offer the weighty mercy, and costly justice on behalf of those in their care. Hypocrites’ words put the weight on others. They rob widows’ houses. They burden the poor with more debt.
Jesus says in Matthew 23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” We are told not to pray like these hypocrites, these lightweights. If we could borrow the language of high school boys competing in the weight room, “How much ya bench?” In matters of prayer, “How much ya bench?” Genuine prayers heft the weightier matters before God. True prayers lift, strain, rejoice, struggle, dance, wrench, suffer. True prayers tip the scales.
Where do we go to do this heavy lifting? Jesus says, “Go into your room, shut the door, and pray in secret.” Translation: “Go into seclusion. Turn off your television, radio, cell phone. And…take off your mask.” Go into your room, shut the door, and strip yourself of all pretensions before God. Go off into the dark, and dream, and become vulnerable to the strange God who comes to wrestle you to the ground, and invites you to push back.
In the sayings of the Desert Fathers, we learn of an encounter between an Abba Moses and one of his monks. In Scetis, a brother went to see Abba Moses and begged him for a word. The old man said, “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” Thomas á Kempis escalates this principle saying, “Every time you leave your cell, you come back less a man.” So go into your room, shut the door, pray in secret to be a human being. Bare yourself. Give yourself completely, your joy and your anger, your hope and your despair, your blessing and your cursing. Weigh God with your words. Burden God with your burdens.
Only in our cells do we most readily pray with genuine hearts, that we may pour ourselves out to God. There in our cells, we are uninhibited by social conventions and good manners,for good manners are the enemy of good prayers. There in our cell, we may surprise ourselves with our honesty before God, and be surprised by God’s blunt truth revealed to us. There in our cells, we have no motive to heap up empty phrases. There’s no one to impress or disappoint. There in our cells, we may pray as the Psalmists do, unleashing our hearts on God with no restraint.
One of the things that strikes me and judges me about the Psalmists is seeing how they dance and sing in their prayers. I don’t know that I’ve ever danced a prayer. Have you? If so, how do you dance when the door is shut and no one’s looking? Like Michael Jackson or Bruno Mars? Or is it more like Lourde, or Elaine Benis? Does it matter either way? In any case, perhaps a genuine Lenten discipline would be to let our dancing and rejoicing in secret be a weighty prayer to the God who enjoys your joy.
But remember as well, the Psalmists confront and accuse God. They cry out and suffer God’s absence. One Psalmist says to God, “Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me…You have put me in the depths of the Pit.” The Psalmist shuts herself up in her cell, and prays in secret, and pounds her fists into the mattress, and sighs heavy, weighty sighs—sighs too deep for words. She blames God with a swollen throat and a voice that cracks, and she emerges from her cell with hair strewn, cheeks chaffed and smeared with tears. These are not the prayers we pray before the family cookout. These are prophetic prayers, Jeremiah’s prayers, “O Lord, you have ravished and overpowered me. You have taken advantage of me! Cursed be the day I was born!” Pray that one at Sunday dinner…
Surely, I am exaggerating. Surely, Jesus is not calling us to pray with these Psalmists, and especially not with Jeremiah. Yet, if we don’t pray with the Psalmists, and we find Jeremiah too ponderous, we cannot learn how to pray with Jesus in Gethsemane. There, Jesus withdraws from the disciples, kneels down, and prays, “Father, please let this cup pass from me. Yet, not my will, but yours be done.” Then, the scripture says, “In his anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” Jesus wasn’t very good at transcendental meditation.
If we would pray with Jesus on the way to the cross, then let us withdraw, go into our cell, kneel down, bare our whole, heavy heart to God, and bleed.